• Kathy Whitham

Feelings Can Be Messy, Right?

Sometimes what we feel is messy.  Sometimes it goes outside the lines, spills on the floor or gets our clothes dirty.  Sometimes what we feel isn’t nice. When did we decide our feelings had to be nice?



Making  a space for your child to express themself creatively through art requires ignoring the mess for a while in order to allow the creative process to unfold. Sharing the art-making experience with your child is a wonderful way to be close.


In the same way, making a space for your child to express themself emotionally requires ignoring the splattered behavior and messy words for a while (as long as everyone is safe) and tuning in to what your child is feeling. What if their acting out behavior was simply the picture of an overwhelmed child?


Emotional expression, like creative expression comes from the right brain, which “thinks” in images, intuition and imagination. The left brain “thinks” in logic and language. Children are emotional creatures. They’re wired for survival which means their right brain is in the driver’s seat when it comes to their behavior. That’s why children use behavior, including words that aren’t nice, to communicate or paint a messy picture of what they’re feeling. They simply don’t have the words to tell you.


Your child’s behavior is not personal any more than the dripped or splattered paint during art-making is personal. I know that may a new way to see it, but try it on for a minute. An even better relationship with your child awaits on the other side.


Let me show you what I mean.


In this first vignette, mom takes Sam’s behavior personally, causing her to be even more stressed out:

Mom: “Time to get ready for bed”

Sam: “No! I’m not tired!”

Mom: “You need to do what I say and get ready for bed.”

Sam: “I hate you!”

Mom: “That’s not nice! You need to apologize to mommy.”

The battle between mom and Sam escalates leading to frustration, yelling and tears.


In this second vignette, mom pauses, then validates Sam’s feelings and helps him become calm - leading to a more peaceful bedtime:

Mom: “Time to get ready for bed”

Sam: “No! I’m not tired!”

Mom: “It’s time to get ready for bed.”

Sam: “I hate you!”

Mom (takes a deep breath): “Wow what a big feeling - you sound mad!” (Mom gives him the words to match how he seems to be feeling.)

Sam: “I am mad!”

Mom: “Tell me more...” Mom has stepped off the battlefield and has tapped into Sam’s right brain in order to connect emotionally. Using the 5 senses she asks questions like:

  • Show me how big your mad is (using her hands)

  • What color is it?

  • How loud is it?

  • Is it hard or soft?

After a while, Sam feels better and mom is able to take his hand and lead him calmly up to bed.


The creation of art can be messy. Let’s give our feelings room to be messy too. The teaching moment will come - but later.


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